I have long thought that our modern approaches to Bible study provide an inadequate set of tools for those seeking Biblical inspiration in the post-modern world. After all, science and theology have discredited Enlightenment Modernism’s promise that human reason could arrive at universal truths in all areas of human knowledge — including religion.
In science, Quantum Physics caused the death of certainty with the Observer Effect and Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. As a result, science no longer seeks absolute certainty of truth, but rather increasing verisimilitude (something approaching truth — by triangling in on the truth through repeated observations, so errors related to observer bias are statistically reduced.
Meanwhile, theology has come to a renewed realization that our modern attempts to achieve certainty of religious truth through appeals to biblical inerrancy (conservative) or biblical text-critical analysis (liberal) will most certainly fall short as well.
Both theological approaches rest on the same flawed assumption that human subjectivity can be eliminated: the former from the reader’s understanding of the inerrant Word and the latter from the scholar’s critical analysis of scriptural texts. This could only be the case if the human mind were somehow less fallen — less affected by sin — than other human faculties, a presumption that flies in the face of the Judeo-Christian understand of human nature.
The Church, faced with a similar inability to eliminate human error from biblical interpretation, needs a method of Bible study that would achieve increasing verisimilitude by counteracting its own observer effect, through similarly triangling in on the truth.
Providentially, such a method already exists, though the Church didn’t develop it. Our Jewish brothers and sisters developed it a long time ago. It is called Midrash. Not surprisingly, given my own Jewish roots, Midrash is my own preferred method of Bible study.
So, what is Midrash?
Black fire and white fire
As Rabbi Rami Shapiro points out in his eponymous article, the ancient rabbis spoke of the Torah as “black fire on white fire” — the black fire being the printed letters and white fire being the spaces around and between. Both kinds of fire must be read and interpreted if anything close to a full understanding of God’s Torah (literally, “instruction”) is to be reached.
God gave the Torah without the vowel marks or punctuation that would enable us to pin down a single, literal translation. So even the act of reading scripture requires creative interpretation. Since God does not make mistakes, God must intend for us to bring our creativity and imagination to the task of reading and interpreting scripture.
Multiple meanings, perspectives, and levels — and it was good
Rabbi Shapiro points to Leviticus 19:18 here. The most common verbalized reading of this passage is “Ve’ahavta et, rayecha k’mocha” (“Love your neighbor as yourself”). However, it can also be vocalized as “Ve’ahavta et, rahecha k’mocha” (“Love your evil as yourself”). Both are legitimate readings. Both must be considered to fully understand the text.
Midrash also recognizes that each person who reads the Torah cannot do so without bringing his/her own perspective to bear, each resulting in a slightly different understanding of the text — all of which are legitimate. The more perspectives we take into account, the more complete our understanding is of the passage.
Finally, Midrash recognizes that any passage of scripture must have multiple levels of meaning — from the surface-level meaning of the literal words to deeper/metaphorical meanings to life applications to hidden mysteries waiting to be revealed.
And it was good
To use the language of quantum physics, Midrash tells us that achieving the highest level of verisimilitude about any passage requires we consider all meanings, all perspectives, and all levels of meaning about the text. Jewish tradition regarding the giving of the Torah at Sinai holds that while all the people present received the same text, each person received a slightly different understanding of it based on his/her unique perspective.
By multiplying the number of literal readings by the number of adult men and women present by the number of levels of meaning, the ancient Rabbis arrived at the conclusion that there must be at least 345,600,000 different legitimate interpretations of any letter, word, or verse of the commandments.
A note on accepting paradox
Midrash places a high value on the ability to entertain seemingly contradictory ideas without choosing between them. By encouraging us to seek out and wrestle with the paradoxes of scripture, Midrash pushes us to transcend our limited perspectives and move towards broader and deeper understandings that are closer to a “God’s eye view.”
As Rabbi Shapiro points out, the governing principle in Midrash is “Elu v’elu divrei Elohim, Chayyim,” which roughly translated, means “These words and those words (no matter how contradictory) are both the words of the Living God.”
How is Midrash practiced?
The process of Midrash can be remembered by the mnemonic PRDS, pronounced PaRDeS, which means Paradise. The four steps of Midrash are:
1. P’shat (literally “simple” or “literal”)
Read the text for its simplest, most literal meaning. For example, if the Torah says God spoke to Moses through a burning bush, we are not allowed to say God spoke to Moses through an exploding cigar. It is also known as the grammatical level.
2. Remez (literally “hint” or “suggestion”)
Rather than avoiding what appear to be contradictions or textual errors — or trying to explaining them away — this step calls us to seek them out as hints of deeper meaning. This is sometimes called the allegorical level.
3. D’rash (literally “investigation” or “insight”)
In this step, we use our imaginations to explore all possible meanings and applications of the text. This is sometimes called the parabolic or homiletical level of Midrash.
4. Sod (literally “secret” or “mystery”)
Finally, we are called to open ourselves to the mysteries revealed to us through creative imagination of Drash. This level of meaning is sometimes referred to as the mystical level.
Let’s go back to Leviticus 19:18. If we hold the two meanings in paradoxical tension rather than dismissing one of them, we might come to the conclusion that the deeper meaning of the passage is that we cannot fully love our neighbor until we learn to love ourselves despite our own shortcomings.
(It is interesting to note that in the early Church, the more literalist schools of Biblical interpretation similarly insisted on treating apparent contradictions as hints to go deeper.)
But what about the Greek?
I know what some of you are thinking . . .
“Okay,” you say. “It’s all well and good to use Midrash to interpret Hebrew, since it lacks vowel points and such. But what about Greek? Aren’t Greek words much more precisely written, leaving little room for alternate word readings?” Good question!
Greek lacks punctuation
There are no commas, periods, or other forms of punctuation in Greek. Therefore, a passage like Luke 16:14 could legitimately be read as, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and ridiculed him,” or “The Pharisees who were lovers of money heard all this, and ridiculed him.”
The first reading condemns all Pharisees as lovers of money; the second only those who loved money. Both are legitimate translations. Both might be true.
Yes. Greek words are more precisely written, so on a word-for-word basis, the meanings are significantly clearer. However, there are several characteristics of Koine Greek (the version commonly used when the Bible was written) that can give rise to alternate, yet legitimate, interpretations.
Greek words have multiple meanings
Just as in English, the same Greek word may have different meanings depending on context. It is nearly impossible to translate a word from one language to another while retaining all of the word’s various connotations.
Greek sentences are non-linear
Because the Greek language is based on case endings of words, word order does not hold the same meaning it does in non-case ending languages, like English. For example, the English translation of 1 John 4:18 is. “Perfect love casts out fear.” However, in the original Greek, the words in the sentence can be read in either direction or even both directions at once. So it also could be legitimately read as, “Perfect fear casts out love” or even as “Love and fear are inversely related: the more you have of one, the less you have of the other.”
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Let’s not fool ourselves
Much is often made of the difference between translation and interpretation. But let’s not fool ourselves, okay? There is no such thing as Biblical translation that does not involve interpretation. All languages are culturally bound — idioms, metaphors, nuances of one language are more often than not lost in simple word-for-word translation.
And so we must be faithful interpreters of God’s word by bringing to bear our imagination and creativity, while realizing we are not free to use the biblical text merely as a pretext — a mere jumping off point for creative expression or imaginative theological navel gazing.
If we to arrive at anything close to an accurate expression of what God is trying to communicate to us through any text, we must never allow ourselves to become disconnected from the literal text.
This is what makes Midrash such a wonderful Bible study. It keeps us anchored to the words of God while harnessing our God-given creativity to achieve an increasingly complete understanding of the Word of God.
Stay tuned for part two on how to apply Midrash to your Bible study.
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